Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 3:05 pm | Partly Cloudy 68º

 
 
 
 

Diane Dimond: With Eyewitness Testimony, the Eyes Can Be Deceiving

How many times have you heard someone say, “Believe me; I know it's true. I saw it with my own eyes!” When someone passionately tells us he or she was an eyewitness to an event we are programmed to believe his or her story.

It happens in courtrooms all across the country every day. An eyewitness takes the stand, puts a hand on the Bible and swears to tell the truth about what he saw.

In sometimes-vivid detail, he recounts the story, points the finger of blame at a defendant and proclaims 100 percent certainty about the identification.

This compelling, first-hand testimony sways juries and has resulted in countless convictions. Some include sentences of death.

So how trustworthy is an eyewitness, anyway?

Not very, it turns out. Various studies show that eyewitness misidentification frequently happens and for a variety of reasons.

Witnesses tend to want to be helpful, but they might have seen the perpetrator for just an instant or from a long distance or in bad lighting yet they make an ID anyway.

Accurate identification also depends on the witness’ age, eyesight, racial bias and whether he or she was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

You might think that people caught up in an active crime scene would have a razor-sharp memory of what happened. But a paper published by the American Bar Association reports that those involved in violent high-stress crimes — especially when a weapon is used — suffer from impaired recall, because their focus is diverted to the weapon and not the face of the person holding it.

Witnesses not interviewed at the scene — those who come forward later — may have seen suspects on television, subconsciously tainting their choice, and there are attention-seekers who appear because they want to be part of the action and not because they actually witnessed anything.

Then there are the things that can go wrong with handling witnesses at the station house. The witness (or victim-witness) is often shown a photo array of suspects, but if the pictures aren’t all of similar size and color the witness’ choice could be affected.

If only one photo is in color, for example, it is more likely to be chosen over all the others. The ABA paper concludes, “Witnesses select the wrong suspect from a photo lineup roughly a quarter of the time.”

During a lineup, detectives might inadvertently telegraph who they think the criminal is, or an officer might congratulate a witness for the “good job” in picking the “right person.” That pat on the back could then reinforce a witness’ erroneous identification.

Aileen P. Clare, a Columbia, S.C., attorney who has studied witness misidentification says, “When the suspect is left out of a lineup, witnesses pick an innocent person more than a third of the time — even when told that the suspect may not appear in the lineup.”

Those are pretty chilling odds and proof that some witnesses are highly motivated to help police find justice even if they aren’t crystal clear about what they saw.

According to the Innocence Project, the biggest factor in wrongful convictions later proven by DNA testing is faulty witness identification.

Misidentification plays a role in more than 70 percent of convictions that are overturned by DNA, and this includes victims who were face-to-face with their attackers yet later identified the wrong person.

Take the case of Jennifer Thompson of North Carolina. In 1984, during a vicious sexual attack, she promised herself she would memorize everything she could about her rapist and, if she lived, repeat it in court.

She positively identified Ronald Cotton as the man who had put a knife to her throat and been on top of her for 20 minutes. Cotton spent 11 years in prison before another man confessed to the crime when confronted with new DNA evidence.

Thompson and Cotton wrote a book about the case and give speeches about witness frailties.

Also in 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth of Maryland was convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl even though there was no physical evidence against him.

He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber after five eyewitnesses identified him as the killer. But once DNA testing evolved it proved Bloodsworth was innocent.

He was released after serving nine years. So much for eyewitness accounts!

Television crime dramas often feature dramatic eyewitness court testimony that neatly wraps up a criminal case. In real life it is much more complicated.

Maybe it’s time judges include instructions to juries about the fail rate of eyewitness accounts.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >